OnePlus 9 Review: History Repeats Itself


2021-04-01 14:04:27

Over the past few generations, OnePlus’ non-Pro smartphones have often been neglected in favour of the Pro models. The feature disparity between the OnePlus 7 and 7 Pro is still the best example to date. Things did improve slightly with the 8 series, but higher prices have also meant that the non-Pro models don’t offer as much value for money. With this year’s 9 series, OnePlus’ much-hyped Hasselblad partnership extends to the OnePlus 9, and isn’t limited to the 9 Pro, which is great.

Add to that the improved sensors, same charging speed, and same display refresh rate as the 9 Pro, and the OnePlus 9 looks like a great upgrade to the OnePlus 8. However, at its new higher starting price of Rs. 49,999, is it better value than OnePlus’ own 8T and 8 Pro? How does it fare against the competition from other brands? Time to find out.

OnePlus 9 price in India and variants

OnePlus sent me the 12GB RAM variant (with 256GB of storage), which is priced at Rs. 54,999. There’s also a variant with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage priced at Rs. 49,999. The OnePlus 9 has the same LPDDR5 RAM and UFS 3.1 storage as the 9 Pro. There are three colours on offer — Astral Black, Arctic Sky, and Winter Mist — but the latter is only available if you choose the top-end variant. The pastel lilac hue of the Winter Mist trim looks pretty but the glossy finish attracts fingerprints very easily.

OnePlus 9 design

In my first impressions of the OnePlus 9, I mentioned that for the first time, the company has used a polycarbonate frame for its flagship number series. We’ve recently seen Samsung make the same compromise with the construction of its non-Plus or non-Ultra flagship smartphones. I wouldn’t care so much if the OnePlus 9 was priced similar to the OnePlus 8T’s launch price, but that’s not the case, which makes this extremely disappointing. It’s puzzling why a brand aspiring to make a name for itself in the premium smartphone segment would take such a backward step.

Having said that, the OnePlus 9 still feels solidly built and the plastic frame does look like metal, even though it’s not. The only silver lining here is that it’s much lighter (183g) and slimmer (8.1mm) than the 9 Pro and even the 8T. The alert slider and buttons have good tactile feedback, similar to the ones on the 9 Pro. OnePlus has retained Corning Gorilla Glass for the front and back of the phone. At the bottom, you get a USB Type-C port, dual-SIM tray, and speaker.

oneplus 9 review back aa

The OnePlus 9 looks good but would have felt more premium with a metal frame, rather than plastic

 

The OnePlus 9 has a similar 6.55-inch AMOLED display as the 8T. It’s not an LTPO OLED screen like the one the 9 Pro has, which is fine considering the much lower cost. It has a full-HD+ resolution, is HDR-certified, and supports a 120Hz refresh rate. You also get an in-display fingerprint sensor, which despite its awkwardly low placement, works very well. The 9’s display is flat, unlike the curved edges on the 9 Pro, but the borders are evenly slim all around. There’s a hole-punch cutout for the selfie camera in the upper left corner.

The camera bump on the back isn’t very pronounced and has a similar shape as the one on the 9 Pro, minus a few sensors. The OnePlus 9 doesn’t look too different to the 9 Pro overall, which is a good thing now that we’ve all gotten used to it. The plastic frame still bugs me in the back of my mind, considering how much it costs, and is something which shouldn’t have been compromised. The box contents are similar to those of the 9 Pro, except for the case, which is transparent rather than opaque.

OnePlus 9 specifications and software

The OnePlus 9 uses the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 5G SoC as the 9 Pro, and in India, it only supports two 5G bands compared to more in other regions. This aside, the step-brotherly treatment rears its ugly head once again. In India, the OnePlus 9 does not receive an IP rating for dust and water resistance, and neither does it get wireless charging. OnePlus continues to reserve these features for its Pro model in India, but not in all parts of the world.

The OnePlus 9 sold in Europe and North America supports 15W Qi wireless charging, which also makes it slightly thicker and heavier compared to the model sold in India. If you’re in the US and purchase the OnePlus 9 via T-Mobile, it will carry an IP68 badge. There is a rubber gasket around the SIM tray even on the Indian model, which seems to indicate some level of water ingress protection, but make of that what you will.

oneplus 9 review display sides qqq

The OnePlus 9 (bottom) has a flat display compared to the curved sides of the OnePlus 9 Pro (top)

 

I think OnePlus should have given the 9 an official IP rating, and at least basic wireless charging in India, if not 30W wireless charging like the 8 Pro. I might even have been okay with this had the pricing been lower, but it’s not.

The other features are similar to those of the 9 Pro. Both models feature Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.2, NFC, multiple sensors and satellite navigation systems, stereo speakers with Dolby Atmos, an updated haptic engine, and a better cooling system for the SoC. They also have the same 4,500mAh battery along with 65W fast charging.

Software is taken care of by OxygenOS 11, which is based on Android 11. My unit received a few updates post launch, and overall, the experience has been better than with the 9 Pro, which still has some bugs that need to be squashed. Hyper-Touch, which bumps the display’s touch response to 360Hz in certain games, is one of the few features that is missing in the 9, but the software is otherwise more or less identical to that of the 9 Pro.

OnePlus 9 performance and battery life

Performance has been very solid right from the get go. The OnePlus 9 is a more comfortable phone to live with than the 9 Pro or even the 8T. The lower weight and thickness help in achieving a better in-hand feel, and the flat display pretty much rules out accidental touches. The 120Hz refresh rate makes any gesture feel snappy and fluid. It will drop down to 60Hz in certain apps, in order to save power. The display is excellent – colours are vibrant, brightness is very good, and viewing angles are more than satisfactory.

oneplus 9 review slim qqq

The OnePlus 9 has a slim profile, making a bit more ergonomic to use than the OnePlus 9 Pro

 

The earpiece and the bottom speaker offer a very good stereo effect, and the volume level is good. Sound quality is similar to what I heard from the 9 Pro, which makes gaming and video consumption a real treat. Just like the OnePlus 9 Pro, the OnePlus 9 can handle even the most demanding games in the Google Play Store. It doesn’t get too hot, since everything is rendered at full-HD+ and not QHD+ like on the 9 Pro. Titles such as Asphalt 9: Legends and Call of Duty: Mobile looked fantastic on the phone’s display.

The OnePlus 9 delivers very good battery life; a bit better than the 9 Pro in fact, in my opinion. Our HD video battery loop test ran for an hour longer too, clocking in nearly 17 hours. With typical use, which included a bit of gaming, video watching, and random social and Chrome usage, I was easily able to go one entire day and a bit more before having to charge this phone. You can kill the battery in under a day with heavy camera use and gaming, but in most cases, it’s safe to assume you’ll get a full day’s worth of use on one charge. Even when you do run low on power, the OnePlus 9 charges incredibly quickly thanks to the 65W charger.

OnePlus 9 cameras

The cameras on the OnePlus 9 are a big upgrade compared to its predecessor’s mainly due to better sensors. There’s of course the whole Hasselblad partnership as well, but for the 9 series, the benefit is mainly seen in the colour tuning of JPEGs and not much else. The main 48-megapixel sensor is lifted from the OnePlus 8 Pro, with the added benefit of Hasselblad’s colour science. However, OnePlus has removed optical stabilisation, which I think was an odd choice. The 50-megapixel ultra-wide camera has the exact same sensor and lens setup as on the 9 Pro, while the third camera is a 2-megapixel monochrome sensor. The OnePlus 9 lacks a telephoto camera, which means all magnification is strictly digital.

Landscape shots taken during the day packed in very good detail and colours, and often matched up to the quality of photos taken with the OnePlus 9 Pro. The ultra-wide camera captured excellent detail too, with minimal distortion around the edges. However, unlike on the 9 Pro, the camera app doesn’t automatically engage the ultra-wide camera when you close in on a subject. You’ll have to enable macro mode manually.

OnePlus 9 main camera sample (tap to see larger image)

OnePlus 9 ultra-wide camera sample (tap to see larger image)

OnePlus 9 macro camera sample (tap to see larger image)

 

Close-ups had good sharpness and colours too, but every once in a while, I noticed the subject had soft focus or that the area in focus wasn’t exactly what I had selected when taking the shot. It’s a bit of a random occurrence, and I’m hoping this can be fixed through a software update. Both the rear cameras do good jobs in low light with landscape shots, but close-ups require a bit of effort to capture well since there’s no stabilisation to compensate for minor hand shakes. Detail and colours are a bit weaker compared to what the 9 Pro produces.

OnePlus 9 low-light selfie camera sample (tap to see larger image)

OnePlus 9 Nightscape sample (tap to see larger image)

 

The selfie camera is the same one used for the OnePlus 9 Pro, and it’s decent but not great. You can get some pleasing selfies during the day if you angle the camera just right, but for the most part, images look fairly average and the quality dips further in low light.

With most OnePlus flagships of the past, the cameras got a little better after a few software updates, and the OnePlus 9 has already received a bunch of them since it launched. After updating the 9 and 9 Pro to the latest Oxygen OS 11.2.2.2 (at the time of this review), here’s what I observed. Both the OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro continued to aggressively sharpen textures, which causes a bit of fringing along the edges of objects if you magnify the images all the way. The OnePlus 9 still produced slightly better details in landscape shots compared to the 8 Pro, despite having the same sensor. However, close-ups remained a bit hit-or-miss with the OnePlus 9, as even though it may seem as though you’ve got a good shot in the viewfinder, the final photo might not match up to that.

oneplus 9 review compare ww

The OnePlus 9 tends to struggle with close-ups every now and then, which isn’t a problem for the 9 Pro or 8 Pro

 

The OnePlus 9 has similar video capabilities as the 9 Pro. It can shoot at 8K 30fps, but 4K recording is limited to 60fps and not 120fps like on the 9 Pro. Video quality is good in the daytime and even low-light footage is clean and relatively free from noise. However, the electronic stabilisation causes a bit of jitter in the video, which is more pronounced at night. The OnePlus 9 can shoot HDR video too, but this needs to be enabled manually, unlike on the 9 Pro which can engage it automatically based on the scene.

The OnePlus 9 did give me an overheating warning when shooting 8K video, but this was after recording a third consecutive clip (8K videos are limited to five minutes per clip). The phone eventually stopped recording during the fourth clip; slightly better than the 9 Pro, which usually stopped mid-way through the second clip.

oneplus 9 review cameras ss

The OnePlus 9 has the same ultra-wide camera as the OnePlus 9 Pro
 

Verdict

Since the OnePlus 7 series, each non-Pro OnePlus model has been meant to cater to mainstream buyers, while the Pro model was for those who want it all, with the appropriate prices. With the 9 series starting at Rs. 50,000, it appears that both models are now being targeted at the premium segment. OnePlus has gone as far as to introduce a third model this year for the Indian market, the lower-priced OnePlus 9R, which comes in to bridge the “value” gap between the OnePlus Nord and the OnePlus 9. So, should you be spending your money on the OnePlus 9?

If it’s just the latest Qualcomm SoC you crave, then the pricing is not that bad. Other phones with the Snapdragon 888 SoC such as the Asus ROG Phone 5 also start at the same price. When compared to the OnePlus 8T, the OnePlus 9 has better ergonomics and rear cameras, which for some would be worth the premium.

If I had to choose between the OnePlus 9 and OnePlus 8 Pro for Rs. 5,000 more, I’d go with the 8 Pro. The latter might not be as slim or light as the 9, and its ultra-wide camera performance is a bit weaker in some cases, but it has a sharper display, an aluminium body, an optically stabilised main camera, IP68 rating, and 30W wireless charging. The OnePlus 8 Pro also looks and feels a lot more premium than the OnePlus 9.

I can’t help but feel an acute sense of déjàvu after reviewing the OnePlus 9, as it’s the same sentiment I had after testing the OnePlus 8. The 9 is a good smartphone in its own right, but hard to recommend when you have the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE 5G and OnePlus 8 Pro selling for around the same price. Plus, with the OnePlus 9R in the picture, the OnePlus 9 seems to be stuck in limbo for the time being.


Orbital, the Gadgets 360 podcast, has a double bill this week: the OnePlus 9 series, and Justice League Snyder Cut (starting at 25:32). Orbital is available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts.



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